Have any of you seen the movie Soul Surfer? It’s the true story of a surfer whose arm was bitten off by a shark and despite this loss of limb, she made it back into the professional surfing circuit. I was mesmerized by this movie. One of my favorite moments in this movie, I must admit, was when the girl’s father adapted her surfboard by adding a handle to the center so she could duck dive with one arm. When he revealed it, I said to my husband, “That’s assistive technology.”
Assistive technology (AT) is a growing source of interest to me. It started with this amazing video I watched about the many AT devices used by Richard Devylder, a man who has lived his whole life without arms or legs. It really showed me how people with even the most seemingly unconquerable disabilities can achieve success and independence in life. Then, last February, I attended the California Association for Resource Specialists’ annual conference. It was the first time I’d attended a special educator conference, and it made for a great first experience.
One of the workshops I attended was a presentation by Rob Mayben, a special ed teacher from northern California who had invented the Desktop Desk. Mayben was presenting this specific AT device for his workshop, so most of the presentation was dedicated to its uses and benefits. As part of the presentation, though, he talked about how he came up with the idea: Mayben had a student with cerebral palsy who struggled to fully participate in wood shop, so Mayben constructed a large box of wood that slid onto the work space. This made the work space higher and more vertical, so the student didn’t need to lean forward as much. The idea worked, and the student happily progressed in wood shop. Riding on that success, Mayben realized that other students could benefit from it too. Fast forward to several years later, and now Maybe has a manufacturer and the product is sold in several different catalogs – ever seen an educational catalog item with a bubble added to it that says “Invented by a Teacher”? This is one of those items. While I admire the Desktop Desk (particularly its portability), what I really gained from this presentation was more fascination for AT.
In all of these examples – Mayben’s student, the girl in Soul Surfer and Richard Devylder – AT is helping someone do what they need to do. Whether it’s duck diving, shaving, or participating in wood shop, AT is the versatile little helper that gets people from point A to point B. Sometimes the AT device already exists, but all three of these examples involved people having to create exactly what was needed (in Richard Devylder’s case, the video uses both store bought and homemade AT).
Currently, I work with a student who struggles to use a multiplication table – keeping track of the column and the row is proving difficult. What I really wanted was a regular old multiplication table that was hard plastic with two colored overlays that slid back and forth. In my online searching, I found tons of different slide rules, slide charts, poster-size multiplication tables, dry-erase tables, color-coded tables, counting dots tables, et al., but not quite exactly what I wanted. I finally got annoyed, thought to myself “I bet I could just make this,” and promptly went through my supplies. One file folder, one colored plastic report cover, a paper copy of a multiplication table, some clear tape, some glue and a pair of scissors later, I had this:
This is exactly what I wanted, as I wanted it (and as a bonus, cost me nothing). I’m sure someone out there has invented this before, and maybe I didn’t use the best search terms when I was trying to find one to buy, so please, don’t think I’m trying to take credit for a brilliant idea. I’m using this moment to illustrate something much more important, that the goal of AT is no different than the goal of the whole of special education: We, as special educators, are charged with identifying a need, and addressing it. Whether we address the need through store bought or homemade means is irrelevant, we must do it nonetheless.